President Barack Obama achieved a remarkable military, political and moral victory with the daring raid that led to the death of Osama bin Laden. Now the president should explain to the American people how finding and killing the al-Qaida leader will affect the war in Afghanistan. The war has been a long, difficult commitment of considerable human and financial capital, and this is an opportune time to reassess the mission.
Beyond the powerful symbolism of killing the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks after nearly a decade of searching for him, the practical effect of bin Laden's death is still being evaluated. The Navy SEALs who conducted the courageous raid on the compound in Pakistan returned with a treasure trove of computer thumb drives and other intelligence that indicates bin Laden remained actively engaged in leading al-Qaida. There appears to be little left of al-Qaida in Afghanistan, and the terrorist group seems to be splintered and disorganized. Obama said on the CBS News program 60 Minutes Sunday night that the raid has created an opportunity to defeat al-Qaida in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
There is no easy answer. The war in Afghanistan already is the nation's longest war. It has cost more than $444 billion — a staggering sum that is more than half the 2011 U.S. defense budget — and at least 1,462 American lives. The United States cannot afford such an expensive open-ended commitment, particularly in a period when the economy remains fragile, the federal deficit continues to soar and deep domestic spending cuts are on the horizon. And there are other areas that pose considerable terrorist threats, including the al-Qaida affiliate in Yemen and the revolts in Syria and Libya. No wonder some members of Congress are calling for U.S. troops in Afghanistan to return home soon.
Yet the situation is considerably more complicated than celebrating bin Laden's death, declaring victory and pulling out of the region. The Taliban is operating in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is in the midst of a spring offensive that was underscored this weekend by intense fighting in Kandahar, where NATO troops and helicopters supported Afghan troops. Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government is unstable, rife with corruption and tempted to cut a deal with the Taliban leadership — hardly an attractive partner for growing democracy. Then there is Pakistan, which has refused to accept responsibility for allowing bin Laden to live there for years and is lashing out at the United States for the raid on his compound.
Despite those complications, the United States cannot afford to maintain a significant military presence in Afghanistan forever. Obama authorized a surge in troops last year that has improved security, and he pledged then to begin withdrawing troops this July. With the death of bin Laden, the president has an opportunity to reassess the nation's commitment and explain to the American people how he plans to prudently reduce it in light of the changing landscape.